Evaluation and perspective seminar as part of the EZA special project to strengthen the social dialogue in the Western Balkans

A weak social dialogue, political instability, amendments to labour law at the expense of workers, discrimination against trade union members, fragmentation of the trade union landscape, wild privatisation, job losses, permanently high unemployment, increasing precariousness due to the flexibilisation of labour markets - these are some of the major challenges for the trade unions in the Western Balkans region, as the participants of the evaluation and perspective seminar as part of the EZA special project to strengthen the social dialogue in the Western Balkans unanimously stated. The seminar, attended by 40 representatives of employee organisations from Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Italy, Kosovo (as guests), Croatia, Slovenia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Serbia and Hungary, was held in Vienna/Austria from February 19th to February 21st 2018 in cooperation with the Austrian Centre for Employee Education (ÖZA).

In their welcoming address, Norbert Schnedl, Chairman of the Public Service Union (GÖD), the Christian Trade Unionist Group (FCG) in the Austrian Trade Union Confederation (ÖGB) and ÖZA, emphasised that a European Union without the Western Balkans was not complete. A future must be shaped with all six countries of the region. Through a functioning social dialogue there are better economic prospects and better social cohesion.

The Honorary President of the Public Service Union (EPSU) and former 2nd President of the National Council, Fritz Neugebauer, emphasised the importance of trade unions as peace organisations. Dialogue and social partnership are a good method for shaping policy without friction. Dialogue, the rule of law and tolerance of religions are what Europe is all about. The European Commission's Western Balkans strategy is therefore particularly important.

Bartho Pronk, Chairman of the EZA, for their part, stressed that the governments in the Western Balkan region were in a difficult economic situation. In this context too - as an investment in stability and prosperity, he quoted Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker - the EU strategy for the Western Balkans is important.

In his presentation "European labour and social policy in the Western Balkans during Bulgaria's EU Presidency and the role of workers' organisations" Vesselin Mitov, International Secretary of PODKREPA, Vice-Chairman of EZA and member of the European Economic and Social Committee, underlined the special challenge facing Bulgaria, which is the first country outside both the Eurozone and the Schengen area to hold the EU Presidency. Europe must be present in all areas of public life in the Western Balkans region, as many other countries, including Russia, Turkey, China and Arab countries, would also strive for the region. Europe is currently doing well economically, so now is just the right time for the EU's Western Balkans strategy. With its clear criteria and timescales, it would now offer a fair and concrete prospect of accession for the countries of the Western Balkans, apart from all political considerations. At the same time, however, the responsibility for the corresponding steps is placed in the hands of the political leaders of these states.

Kai Leichsenring, Executive Director of the European Centre for Welfare Policy and Social Research, Vienna, spoke on the European pillar of social rights and the EU expansion process. He saw the accession process as an opportunity for the countries of the Western Balkans to go their own way. He stressed that the candidate countries there must be more than just suppliers of labour. Social standards would have to be adapted to the needs there. He underlined the important role of the welfare state, which needed to be redefined.

In the discussion, the participants on the part of the EU wished for less diplomatic phrases, but rather concrete indications as to how the accession process of their countries can be shaped positively. Corruption was again mentioned as a major problem in this process. There was a lack of understanding of why Europe allowed politicians in the Balkans to behave as they do and why a sell-out of the economy was allowed. It hurts that the EU institutions only praise progress in politics, although this is not noticeable to the people. This is perceived as misleading. Citizens' awareness must be changed to the effect that the rule of law is the foundation of democracy.

The following questions were discussed in working groups: What has a positive/negative influence on social dialogue? What should change? What can the employee organisations of the participants contribute to this?

In the discussions both in the working groups and in the plenary session, it became clear how important regional cooperation between workers' organisations in the Western Balkans is. The participants hoped that this would give them more opportunities to influence national governments. The progress of social dialogue varies greatly from country to country. For example, there are still no collective agreements in Serbia, but there are in Montenegro and Macedonia. Economic and social councils - in Serbia, for example - exist only on paper.

A number of new labour legislations, precarious working conditions, digitisation, an increasingly neoliberal policy, persistently high unemployment, especially among young people, and the lack of social responsibility of companies were identified as special challenges. An aggravating factor in Albania, for example, is that there is no ministry of employment of its own and therefore no employment council can be formed. In the whole of the Western Balkans, foreign investors, who had a massive influence on governments, are particularly problematic, among other things with regard to labour legislation.

The aim must be to improve the image of workers' organisations, to achieve better networking with other workers' organisations at home and throughout the Western Balkans and to attract more young members.

Overall, the workers' representatives wanted a better flow of information from the European Union, more training and education in order to be able to better exercise their own rights. At the same time, they lacked better contacts with employers. They also missed the voice of workers' organisations being heard in the European Parliament, especially in relation to the accession negotiations.

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